Community Torah Corner, May 10, 2024

Rabbi Eric Yaakov Traiger
Upper School Judaic Studies Faculty
Parashat Kedoshim

The parsha begins with a directive from God to be holy. קדושים תהיו כי קדוש אני ה׳ "You shall be holy for I, God, am holy," says the Torah in the opening verses. What is this notion of "holy"? Rashi says it is an injunction to separate from what is forbidden. Rabbi Moshe Nachmanides, known as the Ramban (1194-1270) has a long explanation to this verse in his commentary on the Torah.  While he quotes Rashi, he adds that there is an element of self-restraint in order to remain separate from what is forbidden. Kedusha, holiness, ultimately has something to do with separation.
We see this idea with Shabbat. It is a day known as "Kodesh'," a day separate from the other six days for a special purpose. When Kiddush is recited Friday night we verbally declare that separate, yet special, quality while acknowledging God as the Source of Creation.  In fact, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993) cites the Talmud, Tractate Pesachim 105b, that one should not delay reciting Kiddush Friday night.  Rav Soloveitchik writes that Kiddush is not mere words; it adds a level of kedusha to the day. The holiness of Shabbat is not complete until Kiddush is said.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) writes in his book Man's Search for God that the “Bible (Torah) is holiness in words.”  Indeed Jewish tradition teaches that God created the world with words. It was with words that God created a covenant with the Jewish people, thereby we became an Am Kadosh, a Holy People, dedicated to a separate, yet special role in humanity.  In fact, Heschel writes that even before the Jewish people were told what to do, in the Ten Commandments, they were told what to be - an Am Kadosh. He further writes that the mandate “You shall be holy” is the goal. The Torah is the guidance; the mitzvot are the instruments through which the holy is carried out.
Rabbi Heschel as well writes about the need for halachic structure, saying, "It is through Halacha that we belong to God not occasionally, intermittently, but essentially, continually." While Heschel here is writing in the context of prayer, he does say that the mitzvot, within the halachic structure, is what brings holiness to life and into the world.
Rav Soloveitchik writes that holiness is other than a mystical, rather holiness is a human creation “... it is through human innovation that holiness becomes applied to the external world." Rav Soloveitchik means here that our application of halachic norms is what brings holiness into the world. Holiness is represented through a person’s dedication to the service of God. In his work Halachic Man, he writes that through mitzvot, God is brought down from transcendence into the immanence of our world.
Both Rav Soloveitchik and Rabbi AJ Heschel present a notion of holiness that resonates with me. It is a holiness that is grounded in the Divine, but paraphrasing Rav Soloveitchik, oriented to the human experience. Their understanding of what it means to be holy is not something lofty, something mystical, but rather holiness is what it means to be human. Holiness is found in our relationships with other people and how we touch their lives. God and the mitzvot are the vehicles for us to sanctify not only our own lives but to bring the sanctity and uplift the lives of those around us.
May we strive to fulfill the mitzvot of our Benevolent Creator and become partners with the Divine to bring holiness into this world, which so desperately needs it.